The year was 1952. A first term liberal Democratic reform governor in Illinois had established a reputation for supreme competence and unquestionable integrity. His accomplishments attracted national attention, and leading Democrats began to speak about him as their most electable presidential candidate.
The incumbent president, Harry Truman, who had withdrawn from the nomination race, encouraged a draft of this Illinois governor. The front runner for the nomination, Senator Estes Kefauver (D-Tennessee) was unelectable. The Illinois governor kept stating he did not want to run for the White House, however. Instead, he wanted to run for reelection for governor in a race in which he was heavily favored. He told those active in the movement to draft him to cease and desist from their efforts.
The Democratic Party leaders and rank-and-file would not take no for an answer. On the third ballot, the Illinois Governor was nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In the 1952 general election, he received more votes than any previous winning candidate for president in American history. He lost by a landslide, however, to the Republican candidate, Dwight David Eisenhower, the most popular war hero of the 20th century.
The name of this Democratic Illinois governor was Adlai Ewing Stevenson, the Man from Libertyville. You can read all about his 1952 candidacy in the book, Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, written by John Bartlow Martin, whom I knew well when I was a student and he was a professor at Northwestern University.
Now fast forward to 2012. A conservative Republican governor of New Jersey has likewise established a national reputation for achieving the impossible: reducing the size of government, reforming state employee pensions and health benefits and thus saving the state from bankruptcy, holding the line on taxes, and serving as a pro-life governor in a pro-choice state. Previously, as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, he had achieved an historic record in indicting and convicting scores of corrupt politicians.
As with Adlai Stevenson in 1952, a movement develops to draft the New Jersey governor for the Republican presidential nomination. The New Jersey governor, like Stevenson in 1952, emphatically tells all those who sought to draft him to cease and desist from their efforts. Like Stevenson in 1952, the New Jersey governor intends to run for reelection in a race in which he will be an almost certain winner. Unlike Stevenson, however, if he ran for president, he would not face a popular war hero but instead a highly vulnerable incumbent president, Barack Obama.
The name of this New Jersey Governor is Chris Christie, the Man from Mendham.
In the wake of the South Carolina primary yesterday, Christie, along with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels will again become the subject of discussion about a possible GOP presidential nomination draft. All three of these men can defeat Barack Obama, while the two current front runners, yesterday’s South Carolina victor Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are unelectable.
In a previous PolitickerNJ.com column, I described Gingrich as having enough baggage for a Samsonite factory. Likewise, it can be said that in this campaign, particularly in South Carolina, Romney picked up enough baggage to fill an Allied Van Lines truck.
There is no evidence that Mitt Romney ever did anything illegal or unethical in the course of his business career. Romney’s equivocation about releasing his tax returns, the revelations about his Cayman Islands accounts, his implication that the $375,000 in speakers’ fees he earned was not a lot of money, and his $10,000 bet offer to Rick Perry, however, have all given Mitt the irreversible image, fairly or unfairly, of being an out-of-touch corporate fat cat. In a year in which Big Government and Big Corporate are equally despised by the electorate, Romney is perceived as the epitome of Big Corporate.
If Sarah Palin endorses Newt, Gingrich will certainly win the forthcoming Florida primary. Florida is a major Tea Party state, and her endorsement would mobilize Florida Tea Party voters behind him. Neither Romney nor Gingrich, however, will be able to garner enough delegates in the primaries for a first or second ballot majority.
The convention in Tampa in August will be deadlocked and brokered. On the third ballot, either Christie, Huckabee, or Daniels will be drafted by consensus of GOP leaders and win enough delegates to become the nominee. At one time, I thought Jeb Bush was a possible draftee, but it appears that he will “take a Sherman” – in the words of Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman in 1884, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”
Will Christie accept a draft? The Man from Libertyville and the Man from Mendham have very different personalities and styles. Like the Man from Libertyville in 1952, however, the Man from Mendham may find it impossible to spurn a draft resulting from the present circumstances.
All three of these potential draftees have remarkable strengths. Christie has enormous appeal to Reagan Democrats. In his campaigns for Arkansas governor, Huckabee received, for a Republican, an unusually large share of the African-American community vote. Daniels has a stellar seven year track record of accomplishment in Indiana.
Still, it is Christie who has the most potential of the three to galvanize the GOP convention, in this same manner as Stevenson did with his convention welcoming speech in 1952. It is quite possible that a Christie-Huckabee or Huckabee-Christie ticket could emerge. Either ticket would be most formidable. Christie, a Catholic himself, is able to attract in droves those ethnic Catholics who are the core of the Reagan Democrats. Similarly, Huckabee would mobilize for this ticket Evangelical voters.
I know that Chris Christie has no intention whatsoever to run for the Presidency this year. He remains one of the few undiminished assets of the Romney campaign. Like the Man from Libertyville in 1952, however, the Man from Mendham may have no choice but to accept a draft in 2012.